Up On The Roof: Low-Income Sandy Survivors Get Free Solar Panels in Far Rockaway

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Almost a year after Superstorm Sandy, many New York City communities are still struggling to recover. Few areas were harder hit than the Far Rockaway community in Queens, located right on the Atlantic Ocean.  Now, three low-income, Far Rockaway families have gotten a boost to their recovery that they never imagined possible: free solar panels on their roofs, which will lower their electricity bills and help to power their homes, pollution-free. Many more hard-hit New York low-income families will soon have solar power in their future, too.  That’s because a great California-based non-profit organization—GRID Alternatives— is bringing its mission of installing solar panels on the homes of low-income families to our area.  

Supporting solar power is a key priority for NRDC as we work to fight global warming and build the clean energy future. (A case in point: our new Solar Schools initiative, designed to help schools across the country go solar.) New York State has been slower to scale up solar than some states. But that’s now changing rapidly due to a new state program called NY-Sun, created with NRDC’s strong support, which aims to quadruple the amount of solar power in New York State this year and keep New York solar growing for the next decade.  More solar power and less dirty fossil fuel pollution are also a key part of the solution to both staving off more extreme weather events like Sandy and to making communities like the Rockaways more resilient when superstorms hit—another huge NRDC priority.  Low-income families can get special benefits from solar power. Not the least of these is long-term, stable and affordable electric prices. That’s especially important as low-income people spend a higher percentage of their income on energy. Clean solar power can also help many low-income communities breathe easier: They’re often disproportionately impacted by local power-plant and vehicle pollution that can exacerbate asthma, heart disease and other life-threatening illnesses.

At a New York City welcome reception for GRID Alternatives that NRDC co-hosted last week , I had a chance to meet some of GRID Alternative’s leaders and learn the organization’s inspiring story. The organization was founded in 2001 by two idealistic engineers—Erica Mackie and Tim Sears—and has grown rapidly, to a staff of 120.  GRID’s mission marries three important goals.  First, it helps low-income families save money on their energy bills. In fact, GRID estimates that its 3,600-plus installations since 2004 will eventually save the low-income families whose sweat equity has helped make these installations possible nearly $100 million through lower energy bills. (GRID also makes sure that the homes on which it installs solar panels reap the benefits of low-cost energy-efficient options, such as more efficient lighting, water-saving faucet aerators, and insulated hot water pipes).  Here’s GRID’s second important goal: to train low-income workers in solar installation, helping them to get jobs in the fast-growing solar field. Third, it strives to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of which Far Rockaway’s residents know only too well already.

GRID Alternatives relies on volunteers and corporate donors to support its work (including NRG Energy, here in New York).  But it also requires government programs like NY-Sun that support and encourage the expansion of solar power.  So, it’s no coincidence that GRID Alternatives is coming to New York this year, after Governor Cuomo committed to keeping NY-Sun in place for another decade, at the level of $150 million per year.

NRDC has long worked with GRID Alternatives in California and our Director of California Energy Efficiency Policy, Lara Ettenson, has been an active volunteer with the organization since 2007.  

NRDC's California Energy Efficiency Policy Director Lara Ettenson, pictured here at a GRID Alternatives installation, is one of thousands of GRID volunteers who've helped low-income families go solar. 

The group’s model is appealing, Lara says, because “it focuses on getting solar to people who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise. It bucks the idea that solar is only for the rich.” GRID works because “they’ve had literally thousands  of volunteers. In addition, the job trainees who lead installations and help train volunteers are getting life skills and job skills.” According to GRID’s communications manager Julian Foley, “We’ve also created more than 1,000 paid work opportunities for job trainees through partnerships with local installers, half of whom report hiring their trainees.”

Once GRID Alternatives opens its East Coast office in early 2014, New Yorkers and New Jerseyans, too, will be able to volunteer to help low-income families enjoy the many benefits of solar power. “Even if you don’t want to be on the roof,” Lara Ettenson explains, “there’s a lot to do on the ground, too.”  That’s good advice for clean energy advocates generally.  NRDC plans to be both on the roof – installing panels with GRID – and on the ground – working to make sure that New York State moves forward aggressively with NY-Sun and clean power.  We hope that you will join us in both these efforts.